Lessons learned from one fat ox…

James Surowiecki starts The Wisdom of Crowds–his intriguing title about collective intelligence–with the story of a man, a group of ordinary people and one fat ox!

The man, a statistician named Francis Galton, went to an English country fair in 1902.   While there, he stumbled across a competition where people were trying to guess the weight of an ox.  There was a prize for the winner, so over 800 people–experts and non-experts alike–submitted guesses.  Some Of the guesses were more accurate than others (think of the kid who guesses 1 million when looking at a Mason jar full of jellybeans) and there was a winner.

Somewhat obsessed with numbers (as statisticians are known to be), Galton asked for the submission tickets.  He was curious to see how the people had guessed—and relatively convinced that most submissions were going to be ridiculously wrong!

Turns out that the ox weighed 1,198 pounds.  (I told you it was a fat ox.)  The average of the 800 submissions for the contest was 1,197 pounds.  The lesson Galton learned that day was one that people have pursued for decades—with mixed results–ever since:  That the collective wisdom of a group is often more accurate than the wisdom of any one person.

The impact of Galton’s lessons has been minimized because–for some reason–America is obsessed with heroes.  We’re convinced that in any field, you’ll be able to find one or two superstars that hold the keys to success.  As a result, we spend inordinate amounts of time and resources trying to identify and then amplify the work of small groups of high-flyers.  In education, that often translates into efforts that recognize and reward “top performers” with year end bonuses after standardized test scores are released.  Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra took this commitment to individuals a bit too far when he described bonus recipients in his district as “the cream of the crop,” and “dedicated” earlier this year.

The implications for the rest of the teachers in Saavedra’s district:  You don’t count.

From my perspective, Saavedra–and other educational policy makers who push for professional compensation plans that reward individual teachers–couldn’t be more wrong.

How do I know?  Because I am a part of a small team of teachers that has worked to identify and then share effective instructional strategies over the past few years and together we have done great things.  The diversity of opinions that we have in our group leads us to some pretty remarkable understandings–“truths” even–about instruction that I could never come to on my own.  Like most groups, our decisions/thoughts/conclusions are strong because they are based on the collection of individual experiences, expertise and discrete bits of knowledge that each person brings to our planning meetings and informal conversations.

I’ve seen the impact that my learning team has had on my own practice over the past three years.  Despite having earned recognition and experienced great success before joining this group of colleagues, I quickly recognized that the end product of shared conversations was better than any work that I had been producing on my own.

I learned to come to planning meetings with my own thinking and lay it on the table, waiting to see what it will become.  Sometimes my ideas are taken “as-is” by the group and other times they are discarded completely.  Most times, pieces of my thinking are combined and refined with pieces of thinking from the other members of my team, becoming a part of something much bigger—and much better.

Our group is a perfect working picture of collective intelligence in action—and together we’ve had some terrific results.  Consider that we raised the percentage of our students on grade level in reading from 92 to 99 percent last year.  Those results are pretty hard to argue with, aren’t they?

My collaborative work with colleagues has convinced me that professional compensation plans interested in making sure that every single student has a great teacher should reward the results of small groups of teachers working together.  By encouraging collaboration, we incentivize the kinds of responsible professional behaviors that amplify effective practices across classrooms.

Wouldn’t that have a greater impact on children than rewarding only a small percentage of teachers who have earned hero status because of isolated accomplishment?

Those ideas run throughout the TeacherSolutions report on professional compensation that I had the opportunity to co-author with 17 incredibly accomplished educators over the past year.  Based on our understanding of the culture of schools, we understood that emphasizing collaboration is essential if we are ever going to be able to guarantee that every child learns from an accomplished teacher.